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LEIGH WHANNELL and JAMES WAN on 'SAW'

Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
October 12, 2004

In the hit thriller Saw, two men, Lawrence (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell), find themselves trapped in a room and at the mercy of the Jigsaw Killer, a notorious sociopath who forces his victims into elaborate, life-and-death situations. The latest game: Lawrence must kill Adam by dawn, or else his wife (Monica Potter) and daughter will die. Despite having no good reason to trust each other, Lawrence and Adam must cooperate and use their wits to solve the puzzle of their precarious dilemma.

In this interview, actor Leigh Whannell and director James Wan, who co-wrote the screenplay for Saw, took questions from the media and discussed the making of their feature film debut.




MEDIA: So what's it like hitting the big time?

JAMES: Well, Leigh and I...we're trying to keep it real. [laughs]

LEIGH: I mean, it's not like you ever know! It's not like you get a letter saying, "Congratulations, welcome to the big time" and there's a golden key that comes in the envelope that opens all these doors. No one ever lets you know. So as far as we're concerned, we're still basically struggling filmmakers trying to make our next film.

Have there been many "career defining moments" for the two of you since you started working on Saw?

LEIGH: Tons. First off, just the guys meeting us saying, "Yes, let's make this film." Then being on the set and going, "This room that you've had in your imagination for two years is built." Then seeing the film at Sundance. I mean, the list goes on and on.

JAMES: We just did this press tour around the States and we were in Atlanta, I think. We must have got the wrong directions, but we went to this theater out in the suburbs. And so we walk up to this theater and there in the corner is a standee for Saw--this huge cardboard thing in a suburban theater in Atlanta. I mean for me, that was like, I couldn't believe it.

One of the most talked about moments in Saw involves a young woman with a device on her head that is designed to rip her jaw open. When you were pitching the idea for the film, you shot a demo of this scene to distribute. Why did you decide to use this scene in particular?

JAMES: I think for a couple of reasons. One was because we needed to really get people's attention, and which is a better scene to get people's attention than that one? And two, it's actually a scene that is very contained and really sums up the feel of the entire film. So we thought, "Hey, why not give it a shot, see what happens?" We could either really freak people out, or people would be willing to give it a shot. Either way, people are going to talk about it and you're going to get noticed.

How did you guys come up with the idea for that jaw snapping contraption?

LEIGH: I sort of pitched it to James. I remember telling him about the jaw trap. And he went away that night and drew this picture of this terrified woman and he gave it to me, and it was exactly how I had imagined it. And so when we came time to make it, James knew exactly what to say to his designer friend for how the jaw trap should look. Because this guy is like an industrial designer, he's not a film guy. He's someone who just makes things to specification. He built it exactly the way James told him, and he actually built it to work. He actually made a working jaw trap that, if you put a bear spring on it and put a bit into the mouth, could easily rip someone's jaw off.

[to Leigh] Did you devise all the movie's tortures?

LEIGH: [laughs] A fair amount of them.

How did you come up with these twisted ideas?

LEIGH: Well, I think once we had the motivation for the killer, that's sort of the passport to coming up with this sick stuff.

JAMES: Yeah, it's really interesting because these torture scenes are actually pretty small in the context of the entire movie, but they're the stuff that people always want to talk about. Which is weird because Leigh and I actually spent a lot of time on the actual screenplay itself, trying to carve out a good story, but everyone wants to talk about the torture.

LEIGH: It's pretty hardcore stuff. In a lot of Hollywood thrillers who sort of walk a more mainstream line, you don't see stuff that's that extreme, really. So I guess it stands out. But trust me, get yourself a bottle of vodka and lie down one night and it'll come to you, too. [laughs]

Saw originally had an NC-17 rating, which is unusual for a film with no sex and no nudity. What exactly was so violent that you had to remove it in order to get an R rating?

JAMES: You know what, I didn't actually cut out that much. I never felt like Saw was that hardcore to begin with. It was never really that gratuitous, because a lot of it was implied. A lot of it was kind of shown off camera. And I shot it in such a way where I sped it up because that's my way of not dwelling on it, if that makes sense. By kind of making it more cartoonish, I'm kind of removing you away from that reality. But what they had problems with, the MPAA, was "the tone of the film." And I was like, "Oh great, I'm going to cut the tone? How do I fix that?" They felt it was just too dark and depressing. So the stuff that I had to cut out were more like trims than anything else. There was no scene cut out at all.

So it's not like the NC-17 version and the R version are different movies?

JAMES: No, not at all.

LEIGH: It's not like there's whole scenes lying on the cutting room floor.

Which death scene do you think is the most horrific?

LEIGH: If we had to really experience it?

JAMES: I'm too squeamish...

LEIGH: The razor wire I would hate. I hate the look of razor wire. You know when you see a prison and you see it all coiled up on the outside and then pulled so tightly that you can imagine someone kind of stuck in it? And razor wire is so different than barbed wire. Barbed wire doesn't give me the shivers. Because razors are such...you know, you only have to nick it and it does such a deep cut. So you can imagine being caught in a huge coil of this stuff. You'd just be sliced to pieces.

[to James] And you're scared of all the death scenes?

JAMES: Yeah.

Then how do you work on a movie like this?

JAMES: Very easy, it's not real! [laughs] When I was there, the razor wire was plastic! It's not real, plain and simple. It's props, it's fake. When you're shooting it, it's just make believe. It's not until you sort of sit back afterwards and watch the film back, then go, "What have I created?"

LEIGH: It's a really interesting question, though, because when I watch a film I find really extreme and hard to watch like Salo or Irreversible, I really do wonder. What did those people say to each other on set? "In that scene where I was forcing you to eat sh*t, you should probably, uh, react..." What do they say to each other at lunch time? It's bizarre. And I think Saw is a few levels down from that.

JAMES: When you're dealing with something like Salo or Irreversible, I think the exact same thing you just said. I think, "What did those people say to each other during their lunch break?" And I remind myself that's a film. Somebody acted that rape scene. It's incredible.

Do you think Saw ended up being more horrific than you originally envisioned?

LEIGH: Can I say this? James will cut me off if he wants to. He came in to me after the first rough edit and said, "Leigh, I've made a psychological drama. I made a drama. I think we need a few more shots of blood in there." And we went out and reshot some stuff just to give it that little bit more of a kick.

JAMES: Yeah, I don't know why, the first cut really did disturb me in that it felt very safe. One of our aims was to not make a safe film. We'll keep that for the studio film we'll do down the track. [laughs]

[to James] With Saw being your feature film debut as a writer and director, did you feel intimidated?

JAMES: I guess it was a bit nervous for me. Like knowing that I was going to be around people like Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Cary Elwes. I was a bit apprehensive at the start. But once I got on set, I just had to concentrate on the film at hand. The whole film was shot so quickly that I didn't have time to think of anything else. The whole film was shot in 18 days and it is tough. And you just cannot get starstruck. You can't think about anything else. A lot of the time, I couldn't even think about directing. Directing took a backseat. I had to basically try and just get the shots done before they started tearing down the set. And I was literally shooting around sets that were being torn down.



Most of the story takes places in one small room. How did you keep things fresh despite being restricted to that single location for such an extended time?

JAMES: It was definitely a challenge because at the end of the day, you could come out like a stage play. Essentially, it's one room and two people. It's definitely very tough, especially at the speed that we were shooting the film at. I had so many really great, grand ideas, but we were shooting so quickly I was like, "Ah, throw that away." But I think what saved my butt was Leigh's script. I think him putting smart stuff in there really did help that.

[to Leigh] Did serving double duty as co-writer and co-star present any unique challenges?

LEIGH: When I was writing the film, I wasn't really concentrating on the role I was going to play. It wasn't like, "Yeah, I'm going to give this character all the best lines!" I really just concentrated on the story as a whole, and then when it came time to act in the film, I was kind of like, "I have to take my writer's hat off and forget about that and not worry about the script," which was hard because on set, there's always script problems presented, but other people are solving them. It was definitely interesting, but I wouldn't say it was hard. It was fun. I was just glad to play the role.

How long have you two known each other?

LEIGH: [jokingly] We're coming up to our tenth year anniversary. [laughs]

Did you go to film school together?

LEIGH: Yeah. We met at university.

JAMES: We were in an art course where we specialized in film. We were 17, we graduated at 21, and I guess we've been trying to get films off the ground ever since.

How did you two gravitate towards a partnership?

LEIGH: Well, they hardly accepted anyone straight out of high school. They didn't like it. The people running the course wanted people to sort of have some life experience, which is smart. But somehow James and I got in straight out of high school. So not only were we kind of the only ones walking around with that straight out of high school look on our faces, but also, I was a fan of his work. I remember when we met. You had to make a film to get into the course, and he's like, "Show me the film you made." So I pop in this videotape and it's like this little piece of 17 year old angst.

JAMES: Teen angst! [laughs]

LEIGH: It was basically an episode of Dawson's Creek for ten minutes. I'm like, "What do you think?" And James is like, "That's great, that's great." And we're talking about how I made it on video. And then James put his film in, which was a stop motion epic as good as any anime I've ever seen about two robots trying to destroy each other. And I'm just sinking down in my chair! It was truly amazing.

JAMES: We found that we had very similar interests.

Do you find that your strengths complement each other?

LEIGH: [jokingly] I've got the body.

JAMES: [laughs] Yeah, he's got the body.

LEIGH: James doesn't need a body.

JAMES: No, I've got the brain.

LEIGH: [getting back on track] That's literally how we work. We come up with ideas together. James doesn't feel like his strength is writing. Like I can write stuff that he likes, and usually we'll make a short film. Like I'll act it and he'll direct it. Having said that, we only made like two short films together before we made Saw.

Do you enjoy film genres other than horror?

JAMES: This always cracks people up, but my favorite genre besides horror is romantic comedy. I have to say, I love it. One of my all time favorite films is While You Were Sleeping. Sandra Bullock?

Do you think Hollywood's recent trend of remaking horror films (both Asian and American) is a good thing or a bad thing?

JAMES: Believe me when I say this: it's really hard for people like Leigh and myself because, after Saw, all that we ever get given is remaking old films. We get so many remakes!

LEIGH: You meet with these people and they're like, "Are you interested in..." And they just name five horror films that came out in the '80s or something. And it's really hard. I'm not really into cover bands. That story's been told!

JAMES: It's actually a lot harder nowadays to pitch an original idea because remakes and adaptations are what they want.

LEIGH: The reason it's going at the moment is because one came out and did well. It's not rocket science to figure out why they're making them, but it is frustrating. It's kind of lazy. It's just them saying, "Let's take something that's been done and dress it up." We really like filmmakers who have original stories to tell.

JAMES: Leigh and I really pride ourselves in coming up with original stuff. Trying something different. And believe me, that is harder than it sounds. People want stuff that they're familiar with.

LEIGH: I guess we are trying to come up with our own stuff and trying to avoid it because we're fans of the movies they're remaking. That's another thing. [laughs] Some films, we don't want to go near. People would tear you apart if you try to remake it.

Would you ever want to remake Saw with a bigger budget?

LEIGH: Maybe the Japanese can remake it, get some vengeance. [laughs]

JAMES: That's interesting, because I felt like I did not get everything I wanted in this version, so I joked that one day I'd love to remake Saw. But then the surprise ending wouldn't really work anymore.

Speaking of the surprise ending, do you feel that there were sufficient clues to the killer's identity, or did that revelation come out of the blue?

JAMES: Leigh and I think that even though we didn't give you clues that are so in-your-face, we felt like the theme of the film is a big part of the clue. It's all about characters who are selfish, and they don't look outside of themselves. They don't see what's directly in front of them.

LEIGH: It's definitely dangled a lot in terms of the dialogue.

While writing your screenplay, did you find it difficult to outwit the audience because of all the "twist ending" movies of the past five years?

LEIGH: Yeah, it's hard. James and I have definitely discovered that if the word gets out that there's a twist ending, it becomes a sport. Instead of enjoying the film, it's like, who can spot it first? It's definitely hard to fool the modern audience just because they're so savvy. The old method of producing an obvious suspect...the audience now knows, "Well that guy's too obvious, so it can't be him." They're actually thinking around conventions that maybe worked ten, thirty years ago.

How do you feel about Saw's ending?

LEIGH: We thought the ending really fitted the film. It suited the theme rather than being a rug pull where it's like from nowhere. "Ah ha, guess what!" It was more like the final nail in the coffin of the themes of the film.

Thanks for your time, and best of luck on your next project.

JAMES: Thanks a lot.

LEIGH: Thank you so much.


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